“Are we ever going to be better than this?” We Are Your Friends

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Someday Hollywood will figure out what to do with Zac Efron. He’s had success  – obviously (High School Musical, Neighbors) – but he always seems to be nipping at the edges of super-stardom. A baby John Travolta or Tom Cruise, trapped in amber, all smoky pout, wounded charm, and barracuda ambition, but with nowhere terribly great to channel it. Heaven help us if he discovers Scientology.

Sadly, We Are Your Friends, his latest gambit to cement leading man status has been dead-on-arrival at the box office and is now pegged as a dismal and historic failure.

And that’s a shame because the movie ain’t half bad.

It’s a bit of a paint-by-numbers affair, cribbing from so many “lost in the valley” (literal and figurative) films depicting an aspiring hustler from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make good by lurking around the darker side-alleys of pop culture, nightlife, and fame – see: Saturday Night Fever, Boogie Nights, 8Mile, Swingers, Magic Mike, Step Up (hell, 75% of Channing Tatum‘s filmography-to-date, qualifies in fact).

In the case of We Are Your Friends, titled after the mid-aughts EDM hit by Justice vs. Simian, Efron and his collaborators, including director and co-screenwriter Max Joseph (Catfish), attempt to capitalize on the white-hot ascension of Southern California DJ-culture and said EDM (that would be “electronic dance music” to us fogies who used to call it, say, house or acid or techno or disco or … er … dance music).

With a healthy expectation for audience members to suspend our disbelief, former Disney star Efron plays a scruffy San Fernando Valley ne’er-do-well whose days (and nights) are spent in a drug-addled, thumping-bass haze as he and his pals bounce from club to couch to club again. The script is an under-baked affair, wisely relying on Efron’s charisma (which he has in spades) to fill in the (many) gaps where a bit of character-development might have saved the day.

Efron’s character Cole Carter (yeah, that name – trying a bit too hard for Cali cool guy chic, if you ask me) is an aspiring musician/producer/DJ with little direction and even fewer resources. In the kind of happenstance collision that only occurs in movies like this, Cole shares a cigarette with – and therefore befriends – world-class DJ (and jerk) James Reed (engagingly played by a glowering Wes Bentley, looking like Chris Evans’ sozzled, emaciated twin).

James gives Cole some superficial tutelage (the EDM Obi-Wan Kenobi version of “write what you know” … which is “grab some weird sounds on your iPhone that you hear around your house and put them in a song”). During a drunken night in Vegas, Cole steals James’ girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski of Gone Girl and Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” video – oy.); James and Cole have an awkwardly staged fight in a bathroom stall; they stop speaking. Cole, consequently, loses a gig that would change his life; James and Cole make up; Cole finally takes his mentor’s advice and “hears the world”; they make up again. Cole performs said gig in front of an American Apparel warehouse (!), offering a hypnotically existential “let’s recap everything you just saw with some flashbacks, looped beats, and smoldering glances from Mr. Efron” denouement, and all is right with the world, when Cole and Sophie reunite over pie at a vegan cafe where she is now waitressing. Whew. Try that with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland!

Efron almost single-handedly keeps the proceedings from running off the rails into soap opera schmaltz. His beautiful loser gravitas gave Neighbors some much needed spice; and the same is true for We Are Your Friends. He is aided and abetted by an appealing group of misfits that trail around behind him. Shiloh Ferndandez, Alex Shaffer, and Jonny Weston play Cole’s bedraggled Valley Boys, as if Entourage were filmed in a Salvation Army somewhere.

After a third-act tragedy strikes this merry band of get-rich-quick schemers, the young thespians do some of their best work in the flick. It’s not their fault that we’ve seen this coming-of-age-in-postmodern-sprawl a million times now and that it was already tired the first time Steven Soderbergh visited this dusty cinematic strip mall. I just wish these actors had a more-focused script with which to work, one that spent time developing the interpersonal dynamic beyond the dreamer/hothead/nerd/gigolo cyphers the actors are given to play.

We Are Your Friends benefits from a game cast and a director (this is Max Joseph’s feature debut) who has a reasonably solid handle on pacing and visuals. (Joseph seems to be a Fight Club/David Fincher junkie as he has a lot of clever fun – nearly careening into self-indulgence – with rotoscoped animation, title cards, and subtitles.) Unfortunately, the script isn’t quite up-to-snuff, and a tighter job in editing would have likely helped as well.

At one point in the film, Cole’s buddy Squirrel (as played by Alex Shaffer) asks, “Are we ever going to be better than this?” – a query which becomes a clarion call for the misbegotten generation depicted in the film. And this same question might be asked of Efron’s sputtering movie career, full as it is of such unrealized promise. Time will tell.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Talk of the Town features Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Reel Roy Reviews, Volume 2

Thanks to Jennifer Romano and Talk of the Town! Read here. Quote from yours truly: “As my blog rolls into another year of entertainment, rife with comic book adaptations, sequels, Oscar bait, arena shows, and theatrical productions big and small, sometimes I wonder if I am choking the life right from this hobby of mine. Can you imagine if every time you saw a film that your OCD tendencies forced you to rush home, throw some quippy hoo-ha on the internet, and wait eagerly for 3.5 comments to appear? Ah, well, it’s still too much fun to stop now—anticipate Volume THREE Roy’s Movie Migraine shortly.”

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

Roy and Susie waiting for the big show

BONUS: Enjoy this fabulous new blog entry from my mom Susie Duncan Sexton – provocative and fun! Read “Got (almond) milk? Books, movies, politics, culture, and AGRIganda” by clicking here.

Excerpt: “Regarding BUT HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK jazz, my mother ALWAYS asked that question. Guess what? She very seldom had actually read the books herself; I preferred to write my book reports based on the more enjoyable movie versions!”

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Day I read a book … The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report

Freak Foundation Operatives ReportYou know what question I’m tired of hearing? “Did you read the book?”

I get asked this repeatedly when I see a movie based on a piece of literature (sometimes using that term very loosely), if I dare to have some issue with the film: its narrative structure, character choices, execution, blah, blah, blah. The questioner always seems to imply that my review is somehow thereby deficient, that I didn’t do my homework.

This scrutiny arose when I found the Twilight movies a tedious bore, when I thought Hunger Games was overrated nonsense, when I dubbed Mortal Instruments insipid idiocy, when I felt American Sniper was dangerous propaganda, and when I perceived Wild to be self-aggrandizing tell-all myth-making. I didn’t read any of these uber-popular tomes – I only saw the film treatments. And I’m not going to read the books. Stop asking me. Please.

(In my defense, I loved the films of Divergent and The Fault In Our Stars, without perusing the best-sellers on which they were based.)

Here’s the thing. I don’t want to have to read the book to understand and enjoy the movie. A good movie adaptation will anchor the narrative pulse points in a novel or biography and add visual flair to make the piece cinematic, comprehensible, and it’s own entity. Think Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Black Stallion, The Godfather, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Foxcatcher. Hell, think Gone Girl.

If it’s that imperative to read the book and see the movie to get the complete entertainment value, well, I just won’t. To me, that’s lazy film-making, and that’s coming from someone too lazy to read the books. So there.

“Day I Read a Book” – Jimmy Durante

 

But, guess what? I read a book – my pal Tom Joyce’s engaging The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report … and I liked it! To paraphrase Super Bowl halftime superstar Katy Perry: “I read a book … and I liked it!”

If Kurt Vonnegut and Janet Evanovich had a baby whose doting uncles were Raymond Carver, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Mickey Spillane, that baby very well might be Tom Joyce. The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report relates the sordid and satirical tale of Batley, a small post-industrial town in Central Pennsylvania, a burg terrorized by a nasty group of thugs (“The Slain”) and populated with a carnival tent full of freaks and weirdos (and that’s just the City Council). The central mystery (and it’s a compelling one) is why this town has been targeted, who’s pulling the strings, and why.

I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but the book is a zippy page-turner with just the right balance of mirth and mayhem to engage the most jaded of readers (me).

Joyce employs a rotating cast of narrators, including a hard-boiled and hard-drinking gumshoe; a universally reviled local journalist (named, oddly enough, “Tom”); and assorted colorful characters, including, among others, a foul-mouthed little person who runs a road-side freak show, a confidence man who grows increasingly less confident in his choice of allies, and a huckster demonologist/psychologist with a heart of gold.

Joyce has a great pulpy literary voice, informed with a cheeky sensibility, a knowing cynicism about the uniquely American ability to wave the flag while we stab each other in the back, and a genuine flair for marrying creeping crud, visceral thrills, and rich Mayberry-quirk  characterization. This book is naturally cinematic in its execution, cable-ready for HBO or AMC or (likely) FX to develop a raw, ribald anthology series from the frothy material.

The novel is composed of a series of journal entries, letters, documents, and reports (via the various narrators delineated above) offering the cumulative effect that we, as readers, are suddenly privy to a hotbed of small-town intrigue as the mystery unfolds through hearsay, redirects, and anecdotes (see Carrie, The Color Purple, or even The Sound and the Fury for other examples of this technique). This, coupled with Joyce’s pragmatic, glib, and witty writing style, makes for an adventurous reading experience – Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew for adults.

Here’s looking forward to big screen (or small screen) adaptation, wherein I can finally ask others, “Did you read the book?”

You can order at Tom Joyce’s The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report by visiting his free-wheeling blog here.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

like osage county only with males, males, males: Guest review of The Judge (2014)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

The Judge

I received the following email from my mom Susie Duncan Sexton last night, and I thought it was pretty funny, succinct, and spot on … and definitely worth sharing here (especially since it saves me from having to see this one, which from the trailers looked a bit too Hallmark Hall-of-Fame/Lifetime TV-movie for me). Here comes … The Judge!

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From: Susie Sexton

Sent: Monday, October 13, 2014, 1:14 AM

To: Roy Sexton

Subject: not good

not worth bothering with…like osage county only with males, males, males…and that love interest sure looks like william macy’s wife…thought it was her through entire film…but this girl was in UP IN THE AIR and the stupid PSYCHO series on tv…only went for billy bob who has not much on-screen time.

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postscript (added by my mom in the comments section below … )

oddly, today, I began to extol bobby “sarah-palin-loving-conservative-tango-expert” duvall…he avoided SANTINI-esqueness, no doubt so that he can do the santini sequel itself about next. shining through some ooky clichés, like chatting at urinals and in contrived dives and on front porches, appeared some pretty cleverly packaged backstories to bring us up to speed as it were? even 8 MM home-made films to let us better understand a deceased mom’s loving parenting skills? else the film would have required serialization.

I am guessing that reviewers should wait one full day to critique because GONE GIRL I fell out of love with in 24 hours…THE JUDGE I began to reconsider. but where was it filmed???? …not MY Indiana…some other Indiana…the tornado has received disses as a tired metaphor for family strife…but the tornado was maybe the ONLY hoosier touch…or at least that business of retiring to the basement jazz that we still think about doing in hoosier-ville. but the bit-o-honey BIT I myself dissed everytime it showed up! probably have spiked your interest now? c’mon, admit it!

post-postscript

googled, and the danged thing was filmed all over MASSACHUSETTS??????? and I read a review criticizing the backstory provided between dueling pop and sonny boy via the gimmickry of screaming expository material (highlighting past events) at each other every so often…I love that description! yep, no mountains or rolling hills or slick scenery in the whole (hole) of Indiana! told ya!

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Susie and Bobby

Susie and Bobby (Kennedy)

So, there you have it, neither Robert Downey, Jr., nor Robert Duvall, and certainly not Vera Farmiga (let alone “Mr. Cellophane” Billy Bob Thornton) can save this train-wreck of a film. (Well, Duvall might have redeemed himself a bit upon reconsideration of the film.)

Skip it, and go see Gone Girl (maybe?) or stay home and watch PBS’ The Roosevelts instead. Or hope that the next Downey film features Felicity Huffman!

And be sure to check out my mom’s funny, provocative, educational, and interesting blog by clicking here – topics include animal rights, culture, movies, nostalgia, equality, and other progressive causes. She is a monthly columnist in Indiana who has published two books Secrets of an Old Typewriter and its follow-up More Secrets of an Old Typewriter: Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels (click the titles to order). And you can find out more about her, read her columns, and view photos at her website www.susieduncansexton.com.

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Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Why should I die? I’m not the a$$hole.” Gone Girl (film review)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Bruise black social satire or toxic tragedy (or both) of the fallacious state of American marriage, David Fincher’s dark film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s dark best-selling novel Gone Girl is compelling and timely, but, at least for this viewer, not as visionary nor as iconoclastic as its hype would suggest.

Doesn’t mean it’s not a crackerjack film, but the ideas herein have been covered in many (and sometimes better) ways. While watching the 2.5 hour flick, I thought often of such clammy classics as The Children’s Hour, Vertigo, Charade, The Days of Wine and Roses, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Double Indemnity and even (arguably) lesser works like The War of the Roses, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Body Double. Heck, I even sense a bit of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible in Gone Girl‘s DNA.

However, what this new entry in mind-f*ck cinema does very well is distill all those disparate influences into a saucy, curdled stew of …

  • the petty evils spouses exact on each other
  • the caustic calcification of love gone wrong
  • the thorny economic necessity of the institution called marriage
  • the disastrous poisons that egomaniacal pursuit of outside adoration and praise introduces into the delicate private workings of any relationship
  • our present-day/post-OJ world of “he said/she said” criminal psychodrama
  • the preening desire of us Gen X’ers to glibly document our every thought, feeling, and deed
  • and social climbing run amok in a Recession-blighted era of unfunded McMansions, too many babies, and too little compassion.

Whew! And Flynn, efficiently and effectively adapting her own novel, partners beautifully with Fincher (for at least the film’s first half) in dangling delicious uncertainty before us. For those unfamiliar with the novel, in essence, Flynn has created a black comedy out of our TMZ/Perez Hilton/Nancy Grace-fueled penchant to celebrate, devour, abandon, and repeat on a 24/7 news cycle prurient stories of philandering spouses who murder each other, their children, or their neighbors or who seemingly evaporate into thin air, only to be found months later in someone’s basement, the bottom of a river, or hanging out at a shopping mall food court.

The “gone girl” in question – Amy – is expertly portrayed by Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice, Jack Reacher) in a super-tricky performance (is she dead? is she alive? what is/was she up to?) that somehow invokes a lot of Cate Blanchett with a sprinkling of Kelly McGillis, Kathleen Turner, Grace Kelly, and Kim Novak. Amy vanishes (amidst broken glass and blood splatters) from the plastic-perfect home she shares with husband Nick (Ben Affleck being perfectly typecast for his prototypical Ben Affleck-iness) the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary.

The first half of the film tracks Nick’s many media, social, and other political missteps as evidence mounts, pointing to him as the likely culprit. Y’see, Amy and Nick, being sickening hipster fancy-pants, have played a “cute” game annually where she leaves him little riddles and clues to his anniversary present and sends him on a “darling” goose chase to figure out what “artisanal” surprise she has in store. So, this year, said clues take Nick (and his new friends, the police) closer and closer to a grotesque image of domestic brutality and potential murder.

But then, the movie reaches the halfway mark, and everything we thought we knew is turned sideways. I don’t want to spoil any of the fun, but, both Pike and Affleck do a splendid job offering characters as unlikable as they are relatable. At one point, Pike intones during her narration of events, “Why should I die? I’m not the a$$hole.”

They are supported by a strong cast that all neatly walk that fine line between dramatic potboiler and broad satire: an oily Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s possibly sadistic ex, an even oilier Tyler Perry as Nick’s defense attorney, Saturday Night Live-alum Casey Wilson as a delightfully wackadoodle neighbor, Missi Pyle as an even wackadoodlier TV shock news host, and stage vets Carrie Coon as Nick’s long-suffering sister and David Clennon and Lisa Banes as Amy’s media-whoring parents. Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ slithering score is a character unto itself, providing the perfect note (pun intended) of menace throughout.

Fincher is so good at creating a claustrophobic world where tension and humor come from familiarity and contempt. I adored The Social Network and Fight Club, and Gone Girl nearly approaches the dizzying fever dreams those films crisply achieved. Alas, the film (and Pike) are burdened with a third act that veers away from the Hitchockian to the Verhoeven-ian. Amy’s narrative has a sharp post-feminism lilt for much of the film but devolves into vagina dentata foolishness in the film’s final moments. To me, that was disappointing, if not inevitable in our misogynistic day and age.

Maybe I’m just a killjoy, but when both characters are as believably rotten as Nick and Amy, let’s not default to the old poor henpecked hubby trope with a dose of Rosemary’s Baby-bait-and-switch as an otherwise fine dark satire rumbles to its denouement.

Like last fall’s superior PrisonersGone Girl aims to say something profound about the “little pink houses for you and me” that provide cold comfort when we are faced with the violent horrors those closest to us can callously inflict. Yet, Gone Girl falls short. In this current moment, when people are withholding marriage from one group by claiming its sanctity for another, Gone Girl is just the poison pill our hyperbolic national debate needs. I just wish the film or the book (or both) had had the courage to see its dark thesis through to the story’s final frames.

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Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view.

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.